Blade Illustration/Wes Booher Enlarge
Don’t mock the beleaguered Nook owner. That could have been you.
Five years ago, when the nation’s largest chain of bookstores released an e-reader that it promised would best Amazon’s Kindle, could you blame the poor souls who bought into Barnes & Noble’s vision of the future? In 2011, Consumer Reports proclaimed the Nook the best e-reader in the land, saying it surpassed the Kindle in just about every way. Well, that sounds pretty definitive, doesn’t it? No wonder your aunt bought you one for Christmas.
Things haven’t played out well since. After failing to douse Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble has spent the last year refashioning its Nook strategy, and with its recent reductions in e-reader staff, the Nook’s end looks nigh. If you own a Nook, the fate of your books may now be up in the air. Sorry, you bet on the wrong horse.
The Nook’s fate isn’t unusual these days. Technologies have always gone belly up, but tech extinctions may become even more common over the next few years. We’re living through an exhilarating and mystifying time in the tech business, when every established brand and business model — from the Windows PC to the whole idea of selling software and hardware for a profit — is suddenly under assault.
Today, five behemoths — Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft — plus a dizzying array of start-ups are competing to win every dollar and minute you spend in tech. While each of these companies offers differing sets of technologies sold under widely varying business models, they all share a common feature — trying to hook you deeply into an ecosystem of interconnected technologies.
The trouble arises when you are sold on a tech ecosystem that doesn’t prosper. It’s likely that at least one, if not several, of today’s tech behemoths won’t be around a decade from now. Thus the pervasive worry of choosing tech in these uncertain days: How do you avoid betting on the wrong horse?
There is hope. By following a simple strategy, you can get the most out of the digital world while reducing the chance you’ll be burned by a single wrong move. The point is to minimize the danger of getting locked into any one company’s ecosystem. The strategy also ensures that you can easily move from device to device without much hassle.
The key is promiscuity. When you decide what to use, you’ve got to play every tech giant against the other, to make every tech decision as if you were a cad — sample every firm’s best features and never overcommit to any one.
This sounds difficult. It isn’t. Here’s the game plan:
● Buy Apple’s hardware: Apple’s phones, tablets, and PCs are the best-designed and best-made computers on the market. They are also the easiest to learn to use and the most durable. And if you’re kind to them, they’ll carry a far higher resale value than rival devices. I say this after having tried just about every competitor to Apple’s machines. Some non-Apple phones and tablets are nearly as nice as the iPhone and iPad (Google’s Nexus line is quite good), but I haven’t found any that beat it, and none that are as pleasurable to use.
But the best thing about Apple’s hardware is that it maximizes your ability to be promiscuous with software.
Apple’s App Store is home to more programs than any other app marketplace. What’s more, the most innovative start-up firms often create apps for Apple’s platform before they bother with Android. Because software is the soul of a machine, the source of all our devices’ advancing powers, you’re best off getting the gadgets that can run the widest range of software.
● Use Google’s services: My phone and tablet carry Apple’s logo, but almost everything I do with them is routed through Google’s servers. There’s Google’s Gmail app for email, Google’s Calendar to manage your day, Google Maps to tell you where to go, Chrome to browse the Web, and even the otherwise useless Google Plus social network to back up your photos.
Throwing your data at Google is a good idea for two reasons: First, the company is incredibly good at managing it; it lets you have access to stuff on pretty much any device, anywhere in the world, all the time. Its services hardly ever go down, its data are extremely accurate (see Maps), and, barring intrusion by the NSA, Google offers solid security (like two-factor authentication).
I also love the handy tricks Google adds as it learns more and more about me (yes, I’m aware I sound like a POW praising my jailers — but it’s true). For instance, its Google Now feature, available as part of the Google Search app on the iPhone, can automatically predict what you are doing next and show you relevant information like traffic directions and boarding passes just when you need it. It even automatically enhances your photos, making your pretty face even prettier.
Wait a second, though — aren’t you committing to Google by giving it all your stuff? Nope, because here’s the best thing: Unlike many of its rivals, Google allows you to download your personal data from most of its services so you can easily move to some other pusher.
● Buy media from Amazon: This one is a no-brainer. If you’re looking to buy a movie on your Windows laptop today, shouldn’t you get one that will also work on an Android tablet you buy tomorrow? If you buy a book to read on your iPad, shouldn’t you also make sure it works on the Kindle you get for Christmas?
Different media providers offer different levels of such interoperability, but books, music, and movies from Amazon are the most widely viewable. You can watch and read Amazon’s media on Apple devices, Google devices, Amazon’s own Kindle line, and lots of other places, like cheap streaming devices for your TV. In contrast, a book from Apple’s iBookstore is probably never going to work on an Android phone, because Apple really doesn’t want you to buy an Android phone.
● Bet on connectors: In our multidevice world, Amazon’s media store functions as what I like to call a “connector” — it bridges the chasm between otherwise foreign technologies.
This gets to the most important principle for dealing with an uncertain future: Invest your time and money in connectors. For instance, store all your important documents on the cloud-storage service Dropbox, because its business model depends on it working everywhere. And it does: The documents you create on any single machine are replicated on all your other machines, instantly. Similarly, when someone hands you a business card, you can snap a photo of it on the note-taking app Evernote, which also functions as a connector, letting you get at your scribbles regardless of which machine you move to next.
And in a cloudy future, who knows what that could be?